My Trauma is Not Your Thought Experiment: On Oppressive Empathy

When it comes to anti-oppression work, I have a problem with empathy. Or rather, I have problem with the ways in which people with privilege and power enact so-called empathy. The ways in which it always seems to demand a centering of their thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences in a narrative that otherwise should be about the trauma they enact, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, on the oppressed.

Here’s what I mean.

A couple months ago Zoé, a beautiful Black woman with a lot of powerful things to share, tweeted a story about having a conversation with another Black woman about racism in different national contexts. It was a life-giving session of shared truths and traumas, as often happens when women of color are blessed to be in honest communion with one another. After their trauma-baring and sharing talk, a white man sitting nearby turned to them to thank them for their words and to let them know that he had been listening and that, as a doctoral student studying issues of race, he now felt he had a lot of great material to think about for his dissertation.

Just like that, the experiences of these beautiful, powerful, oppressed-but-not-diminished had been reduced to fodder for yet another white penis-wielding Ph.D (as if there aren’t more than enough already). Their lived, embodied, emotionalized, spirit-driven experiences, their moment of sacred womanist communion, had been befouled by the soulless exploitation of the white male gaze.

And yet, this dood undoubtedly felt he was paying Zoé and her companion a compliment. Undoubtedly, he felt he was exercising the very epitome of racial and gendered empathy.

The very same day Zoé shared these tweets, I had my own run-in with what I’ll call oppressive empathy. I was attending a symposium on the use of archives in the sciences and one of the sessions was being led by a white woman from a medical archive. Let me begin by saying that this white woman was a very Nice White Lady™, and I bear her no ill-will. But she and some of the others in the group messed up, so I’m going to tell my story and share my truth nonetheless.

For this archival activity, we were asked to engage in a practice of historical empathy, a classroom-based thought experiment that has students conceptualize of a historical figure’s actions within the context of that figure’s imagined thoughts, values, and beliefs as demonstrated by evidence from the period. Walking into the activity, I was sincerely hoping that we’d be activating our historical empathy to connect with some otherwise erased or forgotten voice in historical medicine. After all, a major theme of the symposium had been to discuss archival silences in the sciences and methods for surfacing oppressed narratives.

However, for this activity, we were handed a copy of a speech given by a woman doctor at a professional conference for women doctors in 1910. The archivist had us read a portion of the speech about the latest advancements in medicine and public health, then she began to lead us in the thought experiment. We were asked to imagine that we were attendees at the conference and that we’d be having lunch with the speaker later in the day so we’d need to be familiar with her work.

At this point, even before the traumatizing portions of the activity, I already felt bothered and uncomfortable. Even though the portion of the speech was fairly innocuous, I suspected I knew where it was headed. Also, everyone else in the room was white and could readily imagine themselves as early 20th century doctors attending a professional conference, regardless of gender. I, on the other hand, struggled to see myself, as a Black woman, being permitted to earn a medical degree at the time, much less being welcomed by my white peers in a professional setting.

At this point, the archivist had us read the succeeding portion of the speech, and sure enough, I’d known exactly what was coming. The speech goes on to talk about the “purification of the race” against the “over-proliferation” of other races. Yep. I sat back, already feeling cut by the professional rehashing of my historical trauma in the presence of my white colleagues, when the archivist then asked us to imagine how we would broach conversation with the speaker during lunch. “Bear in mind that just calling her racist isn’t going to be very effective. So how can we connect with her by better understanding her current beliefs and values in context?” the archivist asked us.

What followed was essentially a discussion about reaching out to and empathizing with those who espouse hate-filled beliefs, values, and practices. My white colleagues eagerly embraced the experiment and conversation. In particular, they extolled the way the activity allowed them to disengage from their currently held beliefs and identities to reach out to someone across history. They also readily related the activity to learning to reach out to the many unabashedly parading their hate today. I sat back and disengaged; the emotional trauma of witnessing the historical violence that was enacted against people like me being treated as an academic activity was too much for me.

After the activity, I approached the archivist to suggest that she make space in future iterations of the activity for the identities and emotions of students not able to take a distanced, “objective” approach. I also encouraged her to include a practice of historical empathy for the victims of this doctor’s beliefs and values. We’d been asked to show empathy for this white woman whose professional work was based in white supremacy, oppression, and hate. But what about those she denigrated? What about those erased from her contemporary narrative? What about those doing work that spoke against this oppressive “product of the times”?

Black and white pencil sketch from an 1800s magazine showing a number of Hindi women sitting for a picture with two white men

These are the types of women doctors for whom I’d like to exercise historical empathy. “Women doctors being trained to care for women patients,” The Graphic 1887, Wikimedia Commons, PD

The ability to disconnect from this kind of oppressive history is a privilege. The ability to disconnect from your identity to engage with an oppressor is a privilege. The ability to disconnect from your emotions and values to engage with someone else’s hate is a privilege. And that privilege sits at the very crux of oppressive empathy.

My trauma is not your thought experiment. And if that’s what you need to exercise empathy, then perhaps you need to reexamine your anti-oppression praxis.

Grit? Git!

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately.

Angela Galvan, Jacob Berg, and Eamon Tewell gave a fantastic presentation on the myth of resilience and grit in academic libraries at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference in Baltimore earlier this year. While I wasn’t able to attend because (of course) the conference gods had scheduled one of my panels at the same time, afterward, I dove into their presentation, handout, and the related tweets with gusto. I sincerely hope Angela, Jacob, and Eamon take their work further because it’s really important stuff. They talk about how the myth of resilience reifies oppression and maintains the status quo. How grit is an excuse for the haves to continue having and the have-nots to continue without.

Now, the ACRL President’s Program is planning a program on “resilience (hopefully) in all its complexity” for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual meeting next year. They’ve asked for people to share (for free) their ideas about resilience so that the speakers (not yet identified) can use those ideas as the basis for their talks (likely without attribution as the originating comments are to be anonymized). In other words, ACRL wants us to show resilience by pouring out our gritty souls as fuel for what promises to be an interesting program.

Yesterday at the Untold Histories unconference, I sat in on a session about creating a diversity pipeline for the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) professions. We’d hardly gotten settled in our seats when the conversation quickly turned to the abysmally low pay commonly found in our professions, even when they require graduate-level degrees. As one participant put it, “I feel a little guilty encouraging people from underrepresented groups to enter this profession when I know they’re going to be paid so little for so much work.” In other words, they’ll be expected to spend the rest of their professional lives wallowing in grit and resilience.

All of this thinking has made me reach a conclusion: Our profession’s obsession with resilience plays a huge part in destroying our attempts at increasing diversity. I am convinced that a big reason why we’re still 87% white is because we are obsessed with grit. Grit keeps our libraries underfunded, our staff underpaid, our work undervalued. We wear our grit like medals of honor when it’s that same grit that keeps us mired in the status quo.

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“Grit” by Al Greer via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0

Grit is the magical fairy dust that makes “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” physically possible. Normally, that phrase, so common among those with privilege, is nonsensical. (No, really, it can’t be done.) But when you sprinkle on a bit of grit, all of a sudden, the hapless pickaninny floats up from his place in the dust and accomplishes the incredible. All without touching the much-protected privilege of the master in power. Resilience absolves those with privilege of the responsibility for dismantling oppression and erecting systems of equity. Resilience is the wheel that keeps the myth of meritocracy grinding.

And we, in the library, profession love it. We’re obsessed with it. We love our tales of the library staff who kept the place open after-hours, without pay, for the sake of the community. The library folks who continued to provide the same level of services even when their budgets had been slashed in half. We proudly share our job postings calling for a library unicorn with an MLIS, a second masters, and the ability to do the job of five people while being paid the salary of three-fifths of a person (that age-old fraction always at play). We shove our graduate students into unpaid internships where they pay tuition for the pleasure of handing out their free labor, and we tout their resilience for the sake of gaining “valuable” experience. We love grit.

And we are steadily choking to death on it.

If we truly want to diversify our profession, we MUST give up our obsession with resilience. We must give up our never-ending dreams of grit. As Angela, Jacob, and Eamon note in their work, we have to accept the possibility of failure. Services may (will) be cut. Libraries may (will) close. It’s tragic. But it’s happening anyway, even with our grit. We can’t continue to try to make do with nothing. Our resilience is doing us no favors. It isn’t the life raft sent to save us; it’s just extra weight dragging us down.

Let’s give up resilience and grit and follow in the steps of Christina Bell, that beautiful creature:

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Screenshot of tweet by @librarybell

Reading and Responding to the Margins 

I write a lot about race, racism, and whiteness. And without fail, I’ll hear from a white person responding to my work with:

I get what you’re saying, but [lengthy whitesplaining].

Or

Well, actually, [lengthy quibble about the accuracy or inaccuracy of one statement I made among many].

It’s funny because it’s like these folks are demonstrating my point for me. I write about the often subtle nature of white supremacy and then a bunch of white people fill my comments and Twitter notifications with real-life examples. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. And so the cycle continues. 

These responses, no matter how well-intentioned, are a form of defensiveness and derailing–a means of shying away from dealing with the true nature of what has been written. Rather than accept my experiences as a black woman for what they are and processing their feelings accordingly, these folks retreat to petty debates about word choice or experiential accuracy. (This last even more so in the age of “alternative facts.” This false dichotomy of facts versus non-facts represents a very colonized way of knowing. That’s not to advocate for “alternative facts” or lies at all, but to say that there are other traditional ways of knowing and embodied experience that go beyond what is and is not a fact. Alas, that’s a post for another day.) 

These comments get framed as friendly debate and discussion but are actually active examples of white supremacy refusing to be in any way affected by the racialized reality of one of the oppressed. 

It’s a natural reaction. And it goes beyond discussions of race. I myself have read things by queer folks, native folks, trans folks, disabled folks, working class folks, and reacted in this very same way. I have to fight the urge to reach out to them with my response because I realize it doesn’t matter. I, in my position of privilege, get to see and hear my perspectives and realities all the time, everywhere. They, in their marginalized identity, have to fight for the right to express their truth and speak their reality without reprisal. My defensive maneuvers are not necessary and are certainly not welcome. 

Despite my hurt privileged feelings, it is not silencing for them to tell me to shut up and go away. The fact that I feel the need to ‘splain my privilege all over them is the true silencing of oppression. 

Next time you read something by someone “at the margins” and feel the need to respond with a question, comment, or correction, ask yourself these three simple questions first:

  1. What is it I want to say about what I’ve read?
  2. Why do I feel this way about what I’ve read?
  3. Why is it important for this marginalized person to hear my reaction?

Be honest in your answers. And even then, sit with your reaction for a while. Give it space and time to breathe. Re-reflect and allow yourself to form a new response. You just may learn something. 

Performing Whiteness with “Little Black Tombo”

This past summer I read Lois Benjamin’s book The Black Elite (check out my Recommended Reading list) and in it she quotes a story written by Arthur Hoppe, a white columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The story was published in 1968 in the midst of the black civil rights movement.

In the story of “Little Black Tombo,” the title character, an enslaved boy, wants “to be free, to be equal and to be a man.” So a group of characters known as “some Nice White People” set out to help Tombo achieve his goals. First, they change the laws and offer him freedom from slavery. But Tombo still doesn’t feel equal to them. Then, they help him secure an education. To no avail, though with education, Tombo decides to change his name to “Tom.” Then, they change the laws to allow Tom to purchase a home in their neighborhoods. That still doesn’t work. And so, they conclude,

“The problem,” said some Nice White People, “is sociological. You must dress like us, talk like us, and think like us. Then, obviously, you will be equal to us.”

Tom does all this, and while he is never accepted as an equal of the Nice White People, he does get invited to their cocktail parties and asked to share his opinion “but only about racial matters” as the story goes.

Reading through this story made me think about the work I’ve been doing in examining the ways in which people of color perform whiteness in order to gain and maintain privilege in our society. When I wrote my article on whiteness for ITLWTLP, I was saddened by the number of POC, most of whom enjoying some privilege or other, who responded so defensively to the idea that performing whiteness is a natural part of our defense in a racially-charged world. They wanted to believe that their ability to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and boot-strap-pulling was solely a matter of their own innate, racially neutral, color-blind efforts.

And I get that. I used to feel the same way. But the fact is that, like Little Black Tombo, we all reach the point in this white supremacist world when we realize we have to be a person of color-but-not-too-much-color in order to get ahead. We have our own well-intentioned, liberal-leaning, self-proclaimed allies of Nice White People subtly encouraging us to “dress like [them], talk like [them], and think like [them].” And when it’s necessary, we do just that.

There’s nothing wrong with being a POC performing whiteness for self-preservation. At least, there’s nothing wrong in the sense of self-blame or shame for POC. We live in the world of white supremacy, and we do what we must to survive. In the black community, we are often taught the importance of wearing “The Mask” to get in the door and up the ladder, so that once we’re there, we can change things up and make things better for everyone else.

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“Vergessen” by Rubina V. via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And that’s the key. We perform whiteness without shame because we’re answering to a higher calling, if you will; we’re doing so for reasons that reach beyond ourselves. It’s one of many strategies in our mission to force change in our white supremacist world. So, while I perform whiteness without shame to move up in the world, as I move to each new level, I also shout out against the white supremacy that requires my performance in the first place. It’s a multi-level approach in my radicalism. Each level I clear, I strive to make less racist for the next person coming through in the hope that the need for performing whiteness can be done away with altogether.

One last note: It’s important to realize that performing whiteness and having privilege are not the same. We, as POC, can have privilege on our own merit. We’re smart and charismatic and talented and brilliant people. We don’t have to be white for that. But in some cases, in far too many cases, we have to perform whiteness in order to have our smarts, charisma, talent, and brilliance fully recognized. We can work hard and gain privilege, be it financial or educational or something else. But more often than not, we have to perform whiteness successfully to be able to enjoy the fruits of that hard-won privilege.

So, we do. For now. But the struggle continues and the struggle is real. And with the way things have been going lately, they’re probably only going to get worse before they get better.

By the way, in the end of the story, Tom changes his name to “Tombo X,” grows a beard, wears dark glasses, and shouts, “Black is beautiful” before hitting a couple of the Nice White People over the head. When they complain with “deeply hurt” white feelings, the response goes,

“It’s funny,” said Tombo X, smiling, “but at last I feel like a man.”